If I were ever to go on Mastermind (a childhood dream), there’s no question as to what my specialist subject would be: I have been obsessed with Queen Victoria ever since my student days when I began to read her diaries for my history degree. Having always imagined her as a boot-faced old lady in black – I was astonished to find a breathless teenager writing about how handsome her darling Albert looked “in his white cashmere breeches (nothing underneath)”.
Here was a girl who liked music, parties and men – a woman after my own heart, in fact, and so she has remained 30-odd years later.
As a working mother I still find myself identifying with Victoria: as the first reigning Queen to have children, she was also the first woman to have it all – marriage, a family and a day job heading the most powerful country in the world (even if she did have a lot more help). She may have worn a crown, but underneath she struggled to keep it all together, just as I do. My challenge was to reveal a woman we recognise underneath the corset and tiara.
When I’m writing Victoria, my first move is always to go to my heroine’s own words, all 62 million of them. But I read her diaries and letters not as holy writ, but as the words of a somewhat unreliable narrator. It’s important to remember that she was writing not just for posterity, but for an audience much closer to home – when she was living at Kensington Palace, her mother, the Duchess of Kent, read her journals, and Albert definitely read them after they were married.
When I read Victoria’s writings about her darling angel Albert, I sometimes wonder if she’s protesting just a little too much, trying to console him for the fact that he will never be King. It’s what she doesn’t say that’s the stuff of drama. She never writes about their rows, which we know from the accounts of courtiers were plentiful – she once threw a glass of wine over him. Instead, there will be a particularly fulsome entry about dearest Albert’s wisdom and vision – it’s one way of making up after a row, after all.
Another way, of course, was in the bedroom. Victoria and Albert had an extremely active sex life, and six children in the first eight years of their marriage, nine in all. But Victoria’s fecundity is a challenge to a scriptwriter. If I were to cover the births of all her children, Victoria would be in danger of turning into Call the Royal Midwife. So I have been judicious in my childbirth scenes – even though Jenna Coleman gives great labour – and have only used them when they serve the drama.
My challenge in Victoria is always to keep the balance between drama and accuracy
The birth of the Prince of Wales was a difficult one and Victoria suffered from postnatal depression (one of the few times in her life when she didn’t keep a diary). Obviously her low spirits didn’t have a name then, but while doctors might not have recognised it as a condition, I felt that an older woman like the Duchess of Buccleuch would be familiar with the feeling of hopelessness and inadequacy that can take new mothers by surprise: “You are not the first woman to find herself in low spirits after the birth of a child.”
My challenge in Victoria is always to keep the balance between drama and accuracy. My rule is that I can change the odd date, move people around here and there, so long as I am faithful to the emotional truth of the characters. As many viewers will know, the Queen’s beloved King Charles spaniel, Dash, died long before Lord Melbourne, but I chose to combine their ends in one programme because I felt that together they represented the end of Victoria’s girlhood.
In the episode about the Irish potato famine, I have Victoria meet the Irish clergyman Robert Traill (my great-great-great-grandfather), even though it never happened in real life, because I wanted to show how affected she was by the suffering in Ireland. She has been called the Famine Queen, but in fact Victoria herself gave £2,000 (more like £150,000 in today’s money), to Irish relief – it was her government who let the Irish starve, not their Queen.
The other dilemma I face in Victoria is when I want to include something that’s true, only to find that people think I’ve made it up. When I wrote a scene in which Albert gives Victoria a parasol lined with chainmail to protect her from would-be assassins, my producers thought I had finally gone too far. But engineering an armoured parasol is exactly the sort of thing that Albert would do, and indeed really did.
My proudest moment since I started writing Victoria is meeting a history teacher who told me that she had spent the whole year teaching her year seven pupils about the Chartists, only to be told by one of them, ‘Those Chartists, Miss, you were right about them, I saw them on Victoria.”
I’m not claiming that my series is a study aid, but as well as entertaining viewers, if it encourages them to look a little more closely into their history and realise that people lived, loved and struggled then just as we do today, then I’ll feel that my work has been done.